Like a great holding midfielder, we keep one eye on what’s happening behind us – and the other on the activity ahead. It’s within this spirit, we share our thoughts on ten ? soccer marketing topics that caught our eye in 2016 and we will be paying close attention to in the new year.
The Growth of Major League Soccer
21 years in the books, but the best days for MLS clearly lie ahead. In May, Major League Soccer was crowned Sports League of Year by Sports Business Journal, and 2016 was certainly an another successful step forward for the young and growing League.
- New record attendance – Average regular attendance hit a new record high of 21,692, with all but six teams above the 18,000 mark. MLS champion, Seattle Sounders averaged an impressive 42,636 fans. MLS Cup sold out in 3 minutes.
- TV ratings growth – The challenge of growing TV ratings remains one of the Leagues primary goals, but thanks to an enhanced commitment from broadcast partners ESPN, FOX and Univision, MLS drew an average of 276,689 viewers in 2016. MLS Cup (thanks in large part to FOX’s decision to show in primetime on the big network) generated a combined record 3.5 million viewers across FOX, TSN, RDS, and UNIMAS.
- Expansion Appeal – expansion market interest in MLS hit a new high in 2016 with literally dozens of markets expressing interest in being part of the League. Such is the expansion interest MLS closed the year by publicly stating its plan to grow to 28 teams and revealed 10 markets with stated interest.
Watch Out. The World Is Coming
While MLS is growing, the domestic league most certainly does not have it all to themselves. Soccer is the global game and America is seen as a world of opportunity by many international soccer brands. The volume of soccer available to fans in the US continues to grow with 65 different international leagues broadcast in the U.S. in 2015. But international soccer brands are no longer just relying on broadcasters and their friends at adidas and nike to do the work for them. Several international clubs (i.e. Bayern Munich, Barcelona) and leagues (i.e. La Liga) are now setting up shop in U.S. making a bold statement of intent. Who will do it best and who else will join this trend? We have some ideas – but let’s see what happens.
The Emergence of Gen Z
Move over Millennials, the kids are in town. By 2020, Gen Z will account for almost 40% of consumers. Brands know this – and they are looking for ways to better connect to this all important demographic. Step forward soccer. The ESPN sports poll that identified soccer has the 2nd most popular sport for 12-24 year olds raised quite a few eyebrows in corporate America spurring many to think even more about soccer and its position as a sport of choice for the younger generation. Expect to see an increase in brand activity in this arena in the future.
The Power of Virtual Reality
There might not be a hotter topic than Virtual Reality (VR). VR is all the rage and marketers are desperately trying to figure out how they can harness this dynamic technology to bring a brand proposition to life in a unique way. We witnessed several VR activations in soccer this year; initiated by teams, brands and broadcasters. The opportunities to integrate and leverage VR are far reaching, but at its core VR has the power to help showcase one of soccer’s greatest points of difference – the intoxicating atmosphere of the live match. Expect to see a ton of activity in this space as teams and sponsors look to give the displaced fan a taste of the real thing.
Tech & Data Fueled Fan Engagement
Sports performance technology (player tracking, team analysis, athlete performance, etc.) has been widely used in soccer for several years and continues to evolve. Primarily designed to add value to the internal operations of the club, these sophisticated technology and data solutions are more and more being seen as valuable tools to enhance the fan experience. Microsoft is looking to “bring the stadium closer” to 450 million Real Madrid fans around the world. SAP is working with City Football Group on a number of data infused fan experiences. Audi has it’s Player Index soccer intelligence platform with MLS. These and many other programs have shown promise, but as of yet have only scratched the surface when it comes to adding true experience enhancements to the fans.
There’s a few evolving digital/social platforms we’re keeping our eye on: VR and live video to name just a couple. But, if you didn’t realize this in 2016, you most certainly will next year: Snapchat is a powerful disruptive force. The wildly popular youth-oriented messaging app (and other offerings) made its mark in 2016 as teams and brands jumped all over integration tools such as sponsored filters / lenses. In March we wrote a post “Why Snapchat is the most buzzed about social platform for soccer teams.” We’re betting there’s a good chance we will be writing about Snapchat again next year. Spectacles anyone?
The Language of Emojis
The emoji is the birth of a new type of language (no joke). Emojis, emoticons, pictographs: call them whatever you like – these powerful little pictorial icons hit the big time in 2015, and got even bigger in 2️⃣0️⃣1️⃣6️⃣. Soccer’s young fan base aligns perfectly with this art-form and communication tool. Pictorial campaigns where literally everywhere this year, utilized by teams (i.e. San Jose Earthquakes), players (i.e. Sydney Leroux), and brands. We took a deeper look into emoji use with ⚽️ in this feature article in May and had plenty of fun of own with emojis this year, including this integration for Alcatel with the LA Galaxy. If you want to be in the soccer marketing business – learn to speak emoji.
The Women’s Game
The women’s game (IOHO) remains a largely underutilized platform by brands, but it’s incumbent on the sport to deliver relevancy and activation opportunities beyond just the big event windows of World Cup and Olympics. The ongoing equal pay negotiations between U.S. Soccer and U.S. Women’s National Team players will come to a head next year, and it’s likely this will, in part, trigger a new era for the women’s game. But what that era looks like is hard to predict. What will be the commercial ramifications of the CBA negotiations and EEOC complaint? What’s the growth plan for NWSL? Will more players follow in Alex Morgan’s footsteps and sign in Europe? Will there be an out-of-sight / out-of-mind impact? Lots of open questions surround the women’s game. Watch this space closely in 2017 and beyond.
A New Commercial Landscape
The commercial landscape of soccer in America shifted in 2016 as a fallout of the 2015 FIFA scandal. Traffic Sports USA representation of CONCACAF and NASL ended, paving the way for a new – more transparent – property and media sales landscape. IMG, SUM with the support of ESP Properties and SJX Partners were selected to represent the commercial rights to Copa America Centenario. SUM were subsequently selected to represent all CONCACAF events through 2021. FIFA’s direct presence in the US marketplace selling Regional Supporter opportunities for World Cup, as of yet, has failed to take hold. It remains to been seen how brands look at an association with FIFA directly in the future, but the current market vibe is that there are more attractive sponsorship and marketing alternatives to connect with the sport.
A North & South American Marriage
To close we must reflect on the year’s biggest soccer happening: Copa America Centenario. This special event was pulled together over a frenetic 6 months, but ultimately delivered for the sport, fans and commercial partners. Record ratings for Univision and FOX, as well as huge social engagement were two of the media highlights. #copa100 illustrated yet again that soccer + patriotism + star power is an unbeatable formula. Don’t be surprised if a joint North and South American tournament returns to U.S. in the not too distant future.